Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

The ups and downs of ceiling and wall cleaning

September 19, 2010

Ceilings and walls need regular maintenance to prevent them from becoming a source of contamination or soiled beyond the point of economical cleaning.

In some locations, the cleaning of these surfaces must be done regularly to meet established quality assurance standards, such as those found in high-tech manufacturing and health care facilities.

However, this maintenance is often overlooked until someone moves a picture or examines the surface closely.

Why clean ceilings and walls?
The primary reasons for cleaning these surfaces are:

  1. Health and sanitation: Indoor environments must be safe for occupants, and are conducive to the work performed at the location.
  2. Safety: Light reflected from surfaces in a room helps occupants see. When these surfaces become soiled, light is deflected and absorbed, leading to eye strain, low visibility, accidents, and money wasted on compensating for inadequate ambient lighting.
  3. Appearance: Instead of imperceptibly affecting the image of a facility, soiled surfaces become noticeable to the casual observer and detract from its appearance.
  4. Life of surfaces: The longer soil remains on a surface, the more difficult, costly and hazardous it will be to remove.
  5. Cost control: When cleaners omit walls and ceilings from maintenance routines, repairs and replacements are made necessary due to resulting stains, discoloration and damage, increasing long-term costs.

When to clean ceilings and walls
The appropriate frequency depends on the area and surfaces involved — many variables impact how quickly walls and ceilings become soiled.

Whenever possible, clean the area when it is vacant to considerably reduce the time needed for the job, as there will be fewer obstacles, lower chances of damage, and less need for protecting furniture from overspray.

How ceilings and walls get dirty
In most areas, dirty HVAC systems contribute the most soil to walls, ceilings and vents.

When walls get scuffed, scraped and marked, removing spots and implementing an ongoing paint touch-up program helps keep a facility looking clean.

Other causes of soiling may be related to light, heat, moisture, movement, and electrical energy, as well as the activities such as cooking, shipping and receiving, maintenance, copying and printing, smoking, fire, and air movement caused by high traffic.

The cleaning procedures and equipment used in an area, as well as dirt buildup on carpets and floors, also impact the quantity and types of soil that collect on ceilings and walls.

Further, brooms, feather dusters, dust mops, blowers, floor machines, and vacuums without high-efficiency or HEPA filters tend to stir up and circulate soils that end up on ceiling and wall surfaces.

Oils, grease, smoke and soot sink into and permanently discolor most materials and surfaces — which can be prevented by frequent and regular cleaning.

Common ceiling and wall materials
Most surfaces will fall into one of three categories:

  1. Porous surfaces: This group of rough and absorbent materials includes masonry such as brick, concrete, stucco and stone — and natural materials such as unsealed wood, some fabrics, paper, and flat paints.
  2. Non-porous surfaces: These materials’ solid surface is impervious to moisture and most soils.

    There are exceptions, however, including contaminants containing oil, harsh chemicals, and dyes.

    Common examples of non-porous materials include: Stainless steel, ceramic tile, treated metals, plastics, vinyl, and sealed wood.

  3. Special situations: Some surfaces, such as painted acoustical tile and materials containing asbestos, can’t be cleaned to an acceptable level.

    In addition, some soils and damage — including water marks, oil-based stains, scratches, and gouges — require refinishing, repair or replacement.

How to clean ceilings and walls
There are a variety of methods, each utilizing different equipment, procedures and/or chemicals.

However, follow these procedures regardless of the process or equipment used:

  1. Before cleaning, inspect the area, test a small section, and discuss the process and its capabilities with your customer or supervisor.

    Review what needs to be moved or covered during cleaning, and when you expect the work to be complete.

  2. Clear the work area and cover surfaces requiring protection from overspray, fallout and drips.
  3. Pre-vacuum or dust areas to remove as much loose soil as possible.
  4. Spot clean or pre-spray heavily soiled areas.
  5. Apply and remove cleaning solution.
  6. Inspect your work, and perform touch ups.

Cleaning methods
Several of the most common methods are:

  1. Bucket & sponge, brush or pad
    This wet-cleaning method works well for small, specialized, or extremely soiled areas, but is inappropriate for any surface that would be damaged by water or moisture.

    Since one person can clean only 150 to 200 square feet per hour, this method proves inefficient for large, open walls or ceilings.

    On smooth surfaces, use a sponge, rag or pad; a soft bristle brush will give the best results on rough or textured surfaces.

    A good synthetic detergent or a mild degreaser will remove most common soils, while heavy duty degreaser or TSP provides better results for fire and smoke damage clean-up.

    Start in the bottom corner of the wall and work in equal blocks across the bottom — remembering that water control will help you avoid running and over-wetting — and then clean across the top from the same side.

    As you complete each wall or 10- to 12-foot section, start a new area until all surfaces are cleaned.

  2. Pressurized pad system
    This is similar to the above method, except the solution is pumped from a tank to a pad and then applied to the wall or ceiling. A second pad is used to rinse, clean or dry the surface.

    This method is considerably faster than the bucket and sponge approach, but still very labor intensive — one person might clean 800 to 1000 square feet per hour.

    Again, this wet-cleaning method should only be used on surfaces that are unaffected by water. It is most effective on smooth, non-porous surfaces such as hallway and restroom walls.

  3. Spray-on and squeegee or hose-off
    This wet-cleaning method is used to clean restrooms and shower rooms, where large amounts of water are not a problem. If more detailed cleaning is needed, use a foam gun and deck brush prior to treatment.

    A normal window-washing squeegee works well on flat, smooth surfaces such as walls, ceilings and partitions.

  4. Wet extraction
    One carpet extractor manufacturer now offers a special hand tool that allows you to clean hard surface walls (e.g. marble, grouted tile, and vinyl) and fabric office partitions with the same piece of equipment.

    This is a wet-cleaning process, so thorough testing is advised prior use on any wall-covering material that could be damaged by water.

  5. Pressurized spray units
    These units are widely used to clean acoustic tile. A peroxide or bleach solution is applied to whiten the tiles without damaging it, and then wiped off with a clean with a rag, pad or sponge.

    Since it will not remove water marks, touch them up with special aerosol paint.

    This process is quite effective and cost-efficient when surfaces are pre-cleaned by vacuuming and the solution is evenly applied.

    This can be a highly profitable add-on service for a contract cleaner, and a real cost and labor saver for in-house departments with many ceilings in need of cleaning.

    Although some training is suggested, the chemicals are available by the gallon and a simple electric sprayer and some extension tubing will get you started.

    Production rates are estimated to be appropriately 2,500 square feet per hour for a two-person crew.

  6. Chemical dry sponges
    These rubber sponges are ideal for removing soot and smoke residue, as well as small particulate soils from materials that are damaged by moisture.

    While labor intensive, they are effective and frequently the best option for cleaning delicate surfaces.


Wm. R. Griffin is president, Cleaning Consultant Services, Inc., Seattle. This column is intended as a forum for ICAN members. The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the position of ICAN.